When you are in Trinidad and Tobago, there’s a chance you will hear about its two most famous sons. This Caribbean twin island country has a population of just 1.3 million, and if you are lucky, you might spot Brian Lara at a local eatery, chowing down on iguana with dumplings and red kidney beans, a Trinidadian delicacy he’s known to love. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter the country’s other renowned offspring, though. V.S. Naipaul’s opinion of his birthplace (not to mention Trinidad’s reciprocal feelings toward him) doesn’t exactly include love or brotherhood. While Lara would be a fun guy to break bread with, the pernickety pescetarian Naipaul would probably best be left to eat his bland victuals alone (according to Paul Theroux, he’s also a cheapskate, never offering to pay at restaurants). Luckily though, the author exiled himself permanently to England long ago. And to be fair, T&T does boast of another Nobel laureate, the great poet Derek Walcott. Though born up north in St Lucia, he spent much of his life in Trinidad before moving abroad. While he also lives in England, his memories of T&T are far more pleasant.
I, of course, had no expectation of chancing upon anyone when I touched down at the capital, Port of Spain, recently. Bustling by Caribbean standards, but quiet compared to any Indian metropolis, the pretty little city sits on Trinidad’s northwestern coast in the Gulf of Paria. The two islands (Tobago is about 85 km to the north) are a treasure chest of natural beauty and nerve-placating easiness. Between them, there’s no shortage of powder-soft beaches and crystalline waters to lull you into soporific bliss. But there’s also a ton of things to do, none too hectic, if vegetating isn’t your only goal.
You could get red in the head gawking at flocks of scarlet ibis flooding the sky over the Caroni Bird Sanctuary; speed date the fastest birds you ever met at Yerette, a haven for hummingbirds; watch a leatherback turtle lay eggs on a pitch-dark beach (under the guidance of devoted naturalists, so it’s all kosher and totally non-intrusive), an experience you will never forget; go snorkelling in flora-rich Buccoo Reef, then exfoliate your skin with coral dust in the invisible waters of Nylon Pool; and drink the tastiest rum you’ve ever had, made by a company you only know for its magical bitter tincture. And as you do all that, you could eat your way across the islands, delighting in a miasma of flavours, each dish rich in historical and cultural context.
Besides enjoying its preternatural beauty, my focus was on food. T&T’s cuisine is as diverse as the republic’s history, which has been forced, shaped and flavoured by a smorgasbord of invaders, rulers, settlers and, of course, its own indigenous people. The cuisine is composed of ingredients, styles and techniques drawn from the cultures of native Amerindians, East Indians (as they refer to people of the Indian subcontinent), Africans and Creole (not just the Frenchdominant version as in North America, but also including people from Spain, Britain, Holland and Courland—a short-lived duchy of Latvians, Lithuanians and Poles). Like the islands themselves, the food is simple, laidback, unpretentious, wonderfully wholesome and thoroughly delicious.
My first mission was to seek out what had been recommended by a number of people, an intrinsically Trini dish called ‘doubles’ (I didn’t know what they were and it would be a while before I found out). But that took a backseat when I found myself in a green market promoted by a businessman with philanthropic and holistic leanings. The weekly bazaar on the city’s outskirts features a host of food and handicraft stalls, all predicated on the philosophy of natural, organic and handmade. The stalls revealed a fascinating collision of cultures: an Amerindian woman expertly frying up phulauri—profiterole-plump daal pakodis topped with a sweet and tangy chutney; a couple of Indian ancestry selling eggplant chokha—the Bihari take on baingan ka bharta—the traditional litti supplanted by a soft focaccia-like bread. Phulauri and chokha? Indeed, it’s the Bihar/Jharkhand imprint of the indentured labourers the Brits brought across to work the sugarcane plantations in the mid-19th century. Distracted by the sight and smell of yellow cornmeal batter sizzling on a griddle, I was pulled away to the next stall, where I gorged on cachapas, a luscious corn pancake folded over tender shredded beef, and crisp empanadas, half-moon cornmeal pasties encasing an exquisite glob of melted cheese, served with a tart and hot tomatochillie salsa.
At the Seahorse Inn Restaurant & Bar
Phulauri — a plump daal pakodi served with sweet and tangy chutney
Cachapas — a corn pancake folded over shredded beef
The next port of call was the riverside village of Lopinot, where my hosts had organised an archetypal Trini experience known as ‘liming’. The word roughly translates to ‘hanging out’, but as is often the case with local parlance, the term is not merely about an event or activity but a wider feeling that goes with it. Liming is about connecting and sharing — time, stories, experiences and, inevitably, things to eat and drink. A better setup for such an experience could not have been imagined: alfresco, by a river, surrounded by trees and lashings of food. And a trunkful of booze. If you’re in Trinidad, it would be daft to drink anything other than rum. Not because you’re in the Caribbean and thus it’s the done thing, but because the rum is so darn good it would be silly to caress your liver with any lesser libation. We oscillated between Angostura white rum and Bacardi gold, mixed with Angostura LLB, or lemonlime- bitters, a partner to rum as divinely ordained as tonic is to gin.
The riverside village of Lopinot
A bake and shark stall
Lunch was revealed: curry duck with ‘buss up shut’. The very words contain a rhythm that could fit neatly within the groovy chutneysoca music emanating from the group liming in the next lot. Imagine chunks of poultry, first marinated overnight in ‘green seasoning’ (a Trini staple mix of spring onions, thyme, shado beni, a large-leafed herb strikingly similar in taste to coriander, garlic, celery and hot peppers) and amchar masala (a dry spice blend of toasted and ground seeds of fenugreek, coriander, fennel, cumin and mustard), then cooked down to tenderness with curry powder and water. Buss up shut — from ‘busted-up shirt’, which is what the vast, unkempt roti looks like — is the vehicle used to transport succulent morsels of duck meat into your mouth. This is real food, born of simplicity and common sense. It was invented as a practical way to feed large numbers of hungry labourers without having to roll and bake individual rotis for each one, which would have cost the plantation owners precious time.
It’s not often one discovers a new sandwich that you want to keep returning to for the rest of your life. It hurts when its true version can only be found in one far-off place — Maracas Beach, on Trinidad’s north coast, home to the famous local dish called ‘bake and shark’. While the sandwich is composed fundamentally of two principal components — bread and shark meat (though called bake, the bread is actually fried) — the fun is in all the stuff that goes in. As you place your order at any one of the many stalls that abound the beachfront, this is the ritual that follows: a large bun containing sumptuous batter-fried strips of shark meat is handed to you. You then make your way down the condiment line, filling and building as you go—pepper sauce (that scorpion-chillie stuff is deadly, so beware), sweet and tangy tamarind sauce, shado beni sauce, garlic sauce, mustard sauce, coleslaw, tomato, lettuce, onion, shredded mango chutney and chunks of pineapple. Not one for mixing fruit with my seafood, I was reticent about the pineapple—but then as a visitor, you don’t argue with tradition. And boy, did it pay off. The merging of soft bread, fat shark fritters, crisp salad veggie, sweet, tangy, juicy fruit and flavour-bursting sauces, which the bread had sponged up, was ambrosial. I wanted to stay and never leave. But Tobago was calling.
The two distinct islands that make up T&T were conjoined by British occupiers out of convenience, rather than commonality. Tobagonians are proud of their island and their culture, and are reluctant to let outsiders into their lives and ways. Or so I was told by their Trinidadian brethren — who secretly wished they could move to the sister isle. While Trinidad is a mix of cosmopolitan chaos (by Caribbean standards) and languid island life, Tobago is all of the latter and far more. It’s what you expect of the Caribbean — immaculate blue waters, gentle currents and soothing winds that cajole you to a state of seemingly endless tranquility. It’s also where ingredients are far more natural and are less about convenience.
After a dip in the crystalline waters at Buccoo Reef, we headed eagerly for a beachside barbecue. It was simple and perfect: rum punch, grilled barracuda, cassava, rice and pigeon peas. Served with just salt and lime, the barracuda’s freshness and flavour were heightened by the aromatic grape wood used to barbecue it. But sometimes the staples say even more. I was caught by surprise by how different the pigeon peas tasted here than in just-over-the-water Trinidad. I was told that in Tobago, they use only the freshly shelled version, unlike in Trinidad, where the canned version dominates kitchens.
The Buccoo Reef, which is great for swimming and diving
Tobago had more surprises for me. It’s where I had my first breadfruit pie. Think shingles of breadfruit layered in a dish with a lush, viscous sauce of cheddar, Monterrey Jack cheese and milk, flavoured with mustard, nutmeg, black pepper and a slight hit of scotch bonnet pepper, then baked until the top crusts up in gentle dunes of toasted wondrousness. Kathal and cheese—who’da thought? Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen, apparently, and it’s the place to get it. The view of cerulean sea flowing into azure sky is icing on the pie. It’s ironic that a tropical island should devise a soup that could rival any northern European winter-killing concoction, but the West Indian cow heel soup (also called cow foot soup) is just such a potage. Hooves of cow cooked slowly with pumpkin, potatoes, carrots, yellow split pea and okra — or ochroes, as it’s known in T&T — combine in comfort-food goodness, providing relief from storms, both climatic and existential. Paya lovers would delight in it.
A comforting bowl of cow heel soup
My final meal turned out to be the one I thought would be the first. Just as I was about to get on a plane to leave, those elusive ‘doubles’ turned up. To find them, I headed to a food stand at the airport that is apparently a favourite of the Port of Spain residents. It was 5AM — would it even be open? It was and I ordered me a plate. More irony: what arrived was a pair of puris cradling a heap of hot chhole. It felt odd to be downing purichhole at the crack of dawn on a Caribbean island, but it also felt right, in a strange sort of way — just like the sound of Bhojpuri music mixed with calypso rhythms emanating from passing cars. I’d have killed for a bake and shark, though.